On Tuesday, May 29, the Fredrick Douglass Academy Local School Council (LSC) held a roundtable meeting with CPS representatives to discuss the uncertain future of the school at 543 N. Waller. Among the topics to be addressed: Will the grade 9-12 school be accepting new freshman students next year and will the school receive the same funding as other high schools?
The meeting was attended by nearly 100 school council members, parents and community organizers who each wanted to chime in on the fate of Douglass and Austin high schools in general. Douglass LSC Chairperson Mary Ann Alexander presided over the proceedings.
David Pickens, deputy to CPS CEO Arne Duncan, handled most of the criticism from the audience, while Johnetta James, area instruction officer for CPS, remained silent. Donald Pittman, chief of high schools, arrived late and joined the panelists after many of harshest comments had been hurled, and Steve Washington, chief of staff for the CPS Board of Education, looked impatience throughout the evening.
Audience members asked if their children, currently graduating eighth grade at Douglass, would be able to attend the school next year as freshmen.
“There will definitely be a freshman class coming in next semester, ninth through 12th,” Pickens said. “The original plan for Douglass was to invest in three new schools in Austin, and Douglass was just there to allow students to attend a local high school in the short term; however, the process has taken longer than expected and so keeping Douglass as a high school seemed like more of a viable option even though it is not configured to be one.”
Westside Health Authority member Virgil Crawford argued that the school currently holds about 650 students, but could potentially hold over 1,100. This, he said, was an ideal total to start a “real high school, one that has a football team, college prep curriculum, and a commitment from CPS.” Crawford asked about students who will have to possibly attend another school outside of the district if the school closes.
“That’s a myth,” argued Pickens, as the audience grew increasingly less patient. “We don’t displace students. We always give the the option to graduate as seniors from the school they attend even if it closes. We never force them out.”
Dorothy Henderson, LSC member at Brunson, asked Pickens, “Where is [Arne] Duncan? He’s not here because this isn’t affecting his kids. Why is it when it comes to our kids and where they can attend school in their own community, you act like you don’t have nothing, know nothing and always promise to ‘look into it’ while nothing ever changes?” A chorus of “thank yous” and “that’s rights” echoed throughout the room.
“You are all just puppets for Arne Duncan!” bellowed someone from the back, and the meeting slowly began to dissolve into a heated war of words.
Pickens, pretty much alone, attempted to defuse the tensions.
“We are all here because we care about where our children attend school and what becomes of their academic future,” he said. “We are all here to discuss solutions, and you have my personal guarantee to put together a group of parents to work on solutions to each of these issues.”
Many in the crowd began calling him a liar, a thief and “a nameless bureaucrat that is put in place only to take the heat off Duncan and Mayor Richard Daley.”
After order was restored, the panelists continued to take questions.
Derrick Harris, LSC member of the North Lawndale Federation, brought up the issue of safety and the risk involved with forcing students to trek across several school districts to attend a high school.
“I know for a fact that safety is not among the criteria looked at when deciding to close a school,” said Harris. “Twenty-seven children have died in the past several months in the community, many of whom had to attend Wells or Clemente, schools out of their boundaries. Why can you always find money for this or money for that but can’t assure that our kids will be able to attend a local high school where their safety does not have to be constantly compromised. And what does Duncan have to say to all those 27 parents?”
“We can never assure safety in the schools,” replied Pickens, “although I will add that 70 percent of students in Austin go to school outside the area on their own. It’s not as if it was not happening already.”